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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

A love letter to Sharjah's many charms 

A guide to the emirate from an ardent fan: Sharjah offers art, culture, and cheap ice cream

It’s now a pre-eminent site of art and learning, thanks largely to its ruler, Sheikh Sultan, a playwright with a PhD in history. In 2006, he initiated the Sharjah Museums Project, now a complex of 16 museums. Pictured: the Sharjah Islamic Museum. Chris Whiteoak / The National
It’s now a pre-eminent site of art and learning, thanks largely to its ruler, Sheikh Sultan, a playwright with a PhD in history. In 2006, he initiated the Sharjah Museums Project, now a complex of 16 museums. Pictured: the Sharjah Islamic Museum. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Why Sharjah?

It’s strange, but I first fell in love with Sharjah because of how steep its overpasses are. Its underpasses, too. Going up, going under, it’s all slightly too precipitous. Who knew there were average gradients for overpasses and underpasses — what is this gradient, and why has Sharjah, joyfully, stomach-lurchingly, declined to follow this norm?

Sharjah is the third-largest emirate but has a personality all its own. Prior to the country’s federation, it was one of the wealthiest and biggest ports on the Arabian Peninsula and was famous in the 1970s for being a transportation hub off the beaten track.

An aerial view of Sharjah, one of the seven emirates. Sharjah Art Foundation
An aerial view of Sharjah, one of the seven emirates. Sharjah Art Foundation

It’s now a pre-eminent site of art and learning, thanks largely to its ruler, Sheikh Sultan, a playwright with a PhD in history. In 2006, he initiated the Sharjah Museums Authority, now a complex of 16 museums that include the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation, the Sharjah Art Museum, the Sharjah Science Museum and the Sharjah Archeology Museum.

SHARJAH, UAE. March 5, 2014 - Interior photograph of the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization in Sharjah, March 5, 2014. (Photo by: Sarah Dea/The National, Story by: Rym Ghazal)
The Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization. Sarah Dea / The National

Sharjah was also the site of the UAE’s first great cultural flowering with poets such as Adel Khozam, based there in the 1990s, and later the artists around Hassan Sharif – a legacy that lives on in the Sharjah Art Foundation and the Emirates Fine Arts Society, which are both headquartered in what’s known as the Heart of Sharjah, near the Corniche.

SHARJAH , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES  Ð  Dec 4 : Artwork by kids from different countries on display in the Sharjah International Biennial for Children ' s Arts at the Sharjah Art Museum in Sharjah.  Pawan Singh / The National
Artwork by kids from different countries on display in the Sharjah International Biennial for Children's Arts at the Sharjah Art Museum. Pawan Singh / The National

The city’s Islamic Arts Festival runs every December and January with new local and international commissions. Even the city’s waste management plant, currently under construction, has a cultured pedigree: it was designed by Zaha Hadid.

A comfortable bed

While not known for fancy hotels, there are a few good options. The Hilton Sharjah, which is within walking distance of the Al Qasba waterside precinct, has rooms starting at Dh470 per night. The Sheraton Sharjah Beach Resort & Spa is one of the swankiest but is a bit further out, with rooms starting from Dh628 per night. The Radisson Blu sits on the waterfront and has a nice selection of pools. Rooms start at Dh490 per night (prices include taxes). Luxury hotel, Al Bait, is set to open in the Heart of Sharjah later this year.

People enjoy the pool of the Radisson Blu Resort in Sharjah. Jaime Puebla/The National Newspaper
The pool of the Radisson Blu Resort in Sharjah. Jaime Puebla / The National

A walking tour of the emirate

Start at the Bait Alserkal, part of Sharjah Art Foundation, which is in walking distance of many of the main museums such as the Sharjah Art Museum, the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization and the Sharjah Calligraphy Museum. From there, head south toward the rest of the Sharjah Art Foundation spaces.

The crowd in front of Tarek Atoui, Visiting Tarab, in 2012. Sharjah Art Foundation
Tarek Atoui performs Visiting Tarab in Sharjah in 2012. Sharjah Art Foundation

Top of the pops for contemporary art and film in Sharjah, the Sharjah Art Foundation’s biennial is one of the art world’s most attentively noted exhibitions, and its year-round exhibitions give museum-level care to important, but often under-studied, Arab and international artists (SAF opens four new shows on March 16.) The Foundation also restored the Heritage Area of Al Mareija, around the Corniche, keeping alive old building practices and preserving the narrow walkways of traditional Gulf architecture.

Al Mureijah Square in 2016. Sharjah Art Foundation
Al Mureijah Square. Sharjah Art Foundation

Next, take a taxi to Al Qasba, two low, columned buildings that face each other over an artificial canal that hosts a mix of offices and cultural outfits, such as the Furat Qaddouri Music Centre, the Maraya Arts Centre and, for the meantime, the Barjeel Art Foundation, which will soon be moving, temporarily, to the Sharjah Art Museum. Restaurants and coffee shops line the canal on each side, looking over the families who rent boats on the water. For the kids, there’s a ferris wheel at one end and a playground at the other.

Meet the locals

Beyond the culture – and, of course, the overpasses – Sharjah is one of the most walkable of the seven emirates. It has plenty of public spaces such as Al Qasba, Flag Island and Noor Island (which also hosts a butterfly sanctuary), where the full panoply of the city’s population – Emiratis, Pakistanis, Sudanese, Levantine Arabs – wander in the evening. You can mooch around its small streets, in and out of souqs or within the busy (and enclosed) Central Souq. The Corniche is a working waterfront with shops selling fishing line for boats, lead sinkers, heavy anchors and thick chains. Wooden dhows cruise up and down the creek on fishing expeditions and on informal trade routes.

Sharjah invested at a more measured pace than some of its sister emirates. Getty
The covered souk. Getty

Book a table

Sharjah’s eateries are good value for money and delicious. Just south of the Heart of Sharjah is Najmat Lahore, whose sauve French-speaking, Pakistani head waiter is a famed local.

Nearby, Al Maksoof Al Iraqi serves masguf, a freshwater carp dish (meals there approximately Dh110 for two people), and Aroos Damascus, near the Central Blue Souq, serves fantastic Syrian food (Dh100 for two). Al Sanobar is reportedly the oldest fish restaurant in the emirate and is still owned and run by a Lebanese family. The mother cooks while her sons dish out the food (Dh150 for two). Afterwards, head to Zahrat Al Shemal for an unlimited ice cream selection. A small ice cream is a steal at Dh7.

Shoppers’ paradise

The souqs along the Corniche are set under shaded walkways and, again, cater more towards the local population than tourists seeking pashminas. I picked up two Khaleeji dresses there for Dh60 each. The Central Souq sells the usual mix of jewellery, fabrics for dresses, and oud shops, and if you’re food shopping, at 3.30pm Al Jubail Market holds a daily fish auction.

Don’t miss

Drive to the Arabian Wildlife Sanctuary, a zoo focusing on animals endemic to the Arabian Peninsula – flamingos, vipers and blind cave fish from Oman. About 25 kilometres outside the city. Open daily from 9am to 5.30pm with the following restrictions: closed Tuesdays, Thursdays 11am to 5.30pm, and Fridays 2pm to 5.30pm.

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What to avoid

Sharjah’s traffic is notorious: it’s cheaper to live there than in Dubai, so the traffic to and from Dubai is clogged at peak times. Traffic follows the general flow of the Sheikh Zayed Road: heavy going south in the morning, and heavy going north in the evening.

Getting there

Sharjah is serviced by the Sharjah International Airport, which, reflecting the demographics of its population, is particularly strong on routes eastwards to Pakistan and India.

Depending on the time of day, Sharjah city centre is only a 20–30 minute drive from Dubai International Airport, and 30 minutes from downtown Dubai. It is about two hours’ drive from Abu Dhabi.

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